Paul Nash is one of the most important British artists of the twentieth century. He is perhaps best known as a war artist who painted some of the most powerful works of the First and Second World Wars. He also shaped our experience of the landscapes of Southern England. His paintings explored the Kent and Dorset coast, the Chilterns and Sussex downs and England's ancient past at Avebury, Wiltshire. Those landscapes also provided a stage for his investigations of Abstraction and Surrealism. Nash was at the centre of developments in British modernism, founding the British modernist group Unit One in 1933. He participated in major international exhibitions in the 1930s, such as the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936.
Battle of Germany (1944) is one of a number of works in which Nash used the imagery of clouds to convey the associations that he had made between flight and death. This association began with his watercolour Mansions of the Dead in 1933. In the 1940s Nash explored these ideas both in Battle of Germany and in the series of 'aerial flower' paintings such as Flight of the Magnolia. He made these paintings in the last years of his life when he was suffering from the acute bronchial condition that would contribute to his death from pneumonia in 1946.
Paul Nash, 'Mansions of the Dead' (1932).
Paul Nash, 'Flight of the Magnolia' (1944).
In Mansions of the Dead Nash imagined the places that people's souls would inhabit after death. Writing about the ideas behind the work, Nash described his vision of the souls of the dead as 'winged creatures ... not unlike the ghost moth' which flew between 'airy habitations of the skies which sailed and swung from cloud to cloud'. He depicted these as open frameworks suspended from the clouds. This mystical association between the sky and death in the 1930s took on a new reality in wartime as Nash experienced the fear of aerial bombardment.
Battle of Germany depicts the aerial bombardment of a German city at night. It is one of Nash's most abstract paintings. It's composed of vibrant, loosely painted patches of colour which suggest the shifting forms of smoke and fire from a burning factory, filling the sky and looming over the city. Nash described this section of the painting as 'violently animated' where 'forms are used arbitrarily and colours with a kind of chromatic percussion with one purpose, to suggest explosion and detonation.' In contrast the globe of the moon represents a moment of stillness and quiet before the bombardment begins. This is echoed by the group of circles, representing parachutes, in the foreground.
Nash had written in 1943, 'When the War came, suddenly the sky was upon us all like a huge hawk hovering, threatening. Everyone was searching the sky waiting for some terror to fall; I was hunting the sky for what I most dreaded in my own imagining. It was a white flower … the rose of death, the name the Spaniards gave to the parachute.' Nash was fascinated by the idea of the 'rose of death' making a collage of images of parachutes and clouds with this title in 1939 (now destroyed). He returned to the association of clouds and floating flowers with death in Flight of the Magnolia in 1944.
In the 1940s Nash had become increasingly interested in observing cloud formations. In 1943 he wrote, 'Everything I am thinking of and imagining now tends towards objects poised, floating or propelled through the middle and upper air, earth, the spaces of the skies and the miraculous cloudscapes that constantly form, change and disappear.' While visiting Dorset in September of that year Nash was struck by a particularly unusual cloud formation, and also made a drawing of a magnolia blossom. He combined these elements in Flight of the Magnolia, the image of an unfurling magnolia blossom in flight. Painted in the same year as Battle of Germany, the work explores a gentler interpretation of death as an airborne force. It was one of a series of paintings of 'aerial flowers' that Nash made in 1944 and 1945. In these works he revisited the ideas of the soul as a floating presence in the sky that he had explored in Mansions of the Dead. This was at a moment when his health was poor and he was coming to terms with his approaching death.
Despite working as an Official War Artist for the Air Ministry in 1940, Nash's illness had prevented him from flying in an aeroplane. In the essay 'Aerial Flowers', written in 1945, he reflected on themes of flight in his work and how his series of aerial flowers had emerged from a subconscious search for ways of imagining his desire to fly. He concluded the essay, 'it is death I have been writing about all this time … death, I believe, is the only solution to this problem of how to be able to fly'. Nash had already connected flight and death in the imagery and subject matter of war paintings such as Battle of Germany, but in this article he also explained how these ideas extended to more mystical paintings such as Flight of the Magnolia. Exploring ideas of flight and death in his 1940s works allowed Nash to experience the freedom of flight before his early death, if only in his imagination.